The mammoths trapped in Siberia’s permafrost are a long way from the Palaeontological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, but senior researcher Yevgeny Mashchenko keeps close to the Ice Age giants.

“Any time an entire animal is found, it’s a big event,” said Mashchenko while surrounded by skeletons and body parts of long-extinct creatures in the institute’s museum. More and more mammoth carcasses are turning up in Yakutia, a huge, remote Russian republic roughly the size of India, six time zones east of Moscow and famous for its bitter winter cold.

Mashchenko, 51, has undertaken many search expeditions for mammoths in Yakutia, where frost reaches deep into the soil.

“I’ve experienced it myself, the smell of rot when the earth releases parts of the animal and oxygen decomposes the flesh,” he said.

The smell attracts hungry bears and arctic foxes, which eat the carcasses, aged thousands of years. This, Mashchenko pointed out, is another reason that every mammoth discovery is special.

 “If we find flesh and leave it exposed to air, it turns brown within an hour because the protein is denatured and the tissue decomposes rapidly.”

Inhabitants of Yakutia usually find well-preserved mammoth remains  during the region’s short summers, just a month and a half long. Protruding from thawing ground, they consist mostly of bones or skeleton fragments.

“People’s mobility is increasing. They keep exploring new regions and come across evidence of the past,” Mashchenko said. Thanks to improved communications even in remote regions, they quickly report finds, having become “sensitised to how important it is for science.”

Scientists cannot agree on why mammoths became extinct about 4,000 years ago. Mashchenko sees food shortages as a possible cause.

More mammoth remains are found in Yakutia than anywhere else in the world, which has put a spotlight on North-Eastern Federal University (NEFU) in Yakutsk, Yakutia’s capital, and Professor Semyon Grigoryev.

Grigoryev, who heads the university’s Mammoth Museum, recently made the most sensational discovery of his life: well-preserved remains of a female woolly mammoth, about 2.5m tall, estimated to have died at an age between 50 and 60 years about 10,000 years ago.

Found on Little Lyakhovsky Island, in the Laptev Sea in Russia’s Far North, the remains were removed from the tundra on May 22. Russian state-run media cheered the discovery as the most significant of its kind in more than a century.

 “Fragments of muscle tissue that we found on the corpse have the natural red colour of fresh meat,” Grigoryev said in a television interview. More amazing, though, was that thick blood flowed out when he scraped the frozen flesh with a scalpel despite temperatures in the area around minus 10 degrees Celsius.

 “Everything must be examined very carefully,” Grigoryev remarked, adding that he wanted to determine whether mammoth blood had “cryo-protective properties” that kept it from freezing. Because the lower part of the body was trapped in pure ice, the stomach was well preserved. Delighted researchers now hope to gain insight into mammoths’ diet. The mammoth finds are helping scientists to piece together the animals’ genetic code. NEFU specialists, in particular, have spoken of plans to clone a mammoth.

While Grigoryev conceded that previous discoveries had not brought scientists closer to bringing the species back to life, “we don’t rule out that the mammoth tissue we’ve just found will help to solve the cloning problem.”

NEFU researchers are working on this with the South Korean Sooam Biotech Research Foundation. In March 2012, the partners said they aimed to inject DNA from mammoth cells into an egg taken from an elephant, its closest living relative, and insert the egg into the womb of an elephant meant to serve as a surrogate mother. However, top scientists back in Moscow say the plan is unrealistic.

“The material is of inestimable value to the joint project of our university and Sooam to resurrect the mammoth,” Grigoryev said. “It could have disappeared had it thawed and been eaten by wild animals.”

Only the head, upper back and lower left leg are skeletonised, he noted. Muscle tissue and blood are much more useful to scientists than dry, mummified or fossilised specimens. Grigoryev said that foreign experts would inspect the find in July.

According to Albert Protopopov, a palaeontologist at Yakutia’s Academy of Sciences, hunters as well as collectors of mammoth teeth and tusks often find the remains of prehistoric animals in the tundra, including woolly rhinoceroses. A finder’s reward is available to them.

The precious ivory tusks are coveted mainly in China, and there is a long tradition of ivory carving in Siberia. For scientists, though, tissue samples are of the most interest.

Most mammoth remains are first placed in cold storage at Yakutia’s Academy of Sciences. Each object is worked on for an average of about five years, Protopopov said.

As for successfully cloning a mammoth, the majority of specialists in Moscow remain doubtful. “Definitely not in the next five to seven years, as the South Koreans intend. It’s completely impossible,” Mashchenko said.

Scientists in the Russian capital also reacted rather calmly to the discovery in Yakutia, in 2010, of the first well-preserved mammoth brain. “All of these discussions (on cloning) are nonsense in my view — freezing and thawing kills the cells,” said Sergei Savelyev, a biologist at the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences in Moscow. He did a CAT scan on the brain aimed at learning its internal structure.

Among other things, mammoth researchers want to find out how similar their subjects are to present-day Indian and African elephants. But so long as they get no living cells, they see little chance of cloning a mammoth.

Mashchenko is loath to wholly exclude the possibility, though.

 “Science feeds on dreams. During the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci practically foresaw the computer. It came hundreds of years later,” he said.

Modern science is advancing rapidly, and experts think that genetic engineers may be able to replicate the mammoth genome in the future. They emphasise, however, that the costs will be immense.

Mashchenko hopes the sensational finds in Yakutia will spur Russian leaders to allocate more funds for mammoth research. – DPA






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